Title: The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
Publisher: Riverhead Books
In a nutshell:
Three Korean Americans – Will Kendall, who recently loss his faith in Christianity, met and fell obsessively in love Phoebe Lin. Feeling the guilt over her mother’s death, Phoebe tried to find ways to bury those feelings, which led her to John Leal, the founder of a Christian cult, Jejah.
Will tried to save Phoebe from getting more involved in Jejah, but failed. She drifted further away from him, sinking deeper into the cult.
“Incendiary – tending to arouse strife, sedition, etc.; inflammatory”.
This novel explored themes such as faith vs fanaticism, love, loss and deception.
It’s the smallest volume of a novel I’ve read so far, and I thought reviewing it would definitely be easier than the rest. But, woah, WAS I WRONG. This, for me, is one of the most difficult reviews to write. I had to mull on it for a couple of days before writing a review.
Before you read this book, do note:
- You’re going into a story already knowing what is to happen, so no surprises here.
- Phoebe and John’s side of the story were told by Will (It’s usually along the lines of she said… Or she might’ve said).
Here’s an example in Phoebe’s chapter, as narrated by Will:
Though I’d driven Phoebe here, I was outside, going home. It’s a mistake. I should have stayed, but I didn’t. Instead, I’ll add what details I can.
The fact that Will narrated Phoebe and John’s part when he wasn’t there, or recalling conversations or events based on his memory, made me doubt its accuracy. I mean, how reliable is one’s memory? And his version of them and their stories could be biased, which made me question, are they who they really are as depicted by Will?
- And conversations had no quotation marks.
- Kwon’s writing* might take a little getting used to, so the beginning wasn’t easy, for me at least.
* Some examples:
That’s all death is, he said. It’s an unveiling. In time, they’d show like flares.
I cut the strings. I had the balloonatic’s glee. Timelines cracked, shifted; my father pulled his emptied seat to the table.
Reading this book was like trying to put pieces of a puzzle together. No time, no day, no date mentioned; you’d have to figure out the back and forth yourself. Fragments of memories here and there.
And the book was written in such a way that it kept me at a distance, like an outsider looking in; someone who had been intentionally shut out, just watching the characters assuming their roles, and witnessing the events unfold, making it hard for me to empathize with the characters, and feel part of the story.
I wanted desperately to feel for Phoebe and the emptiness she was experiencing, but I couldn’t, as she was ever-changing in Will’s eyes (popular among friends in the beginning, then aloof and distant towards the end); I wanted to hate John and his cult, but I couldn’t because I wasn’t invested enough in his character. And Will is such a dubious character. He portrayed himself as a filial son and a thoughtful boyfriend, but decided to stalk a girl he spotted in a dark alley. That’s just plain creepy. He also got Phoebe to doing things against her will to get her to leave the cult.
Yet despite the detachment I felt, when the bombing of the clinics happened, I felt angered, frustrated, exasperated; the sort of reaction after reading the papers/watching the news about tragedies like this one. You feel for what happened without knowing any of the victims or people involved.
See the cover of the book? That was how I felt after reading it. My feelings were shattered in every possible direction. Bits and pieces of my emotion scattered everywhere. It’s just unexplainable.
If you’re thinking of reading this novel, enter with an open mind, and be ready for a rather different novel written by a novelist with a very unique style and voice.
That said, overall, I think it’s a great debut! Curious to find out what she’ll write next!
(Not-so) Fun Fact:
It took Kwon TEN YEARS to write this book.
Intrigued? Curious? Then give this book a shot, if not, skip it.
TRIGGER WARNING: rape; grievous bodily harm (GBH)
Have you read it? If yes, please, please share with me your thoughts!